Japanese writer/director Hirokazu Kore-eda may not be a household name outside of film geek circles, but he undoubtedly should be — just not on the basis of The Third Murder. Should Kore-eda’s Palme d’Or winner Shoplifters find a screen in Asheville, audiences will be treated to the sort of humanist family drama that has become the hallmark of one of Japan’s greatest living filmmakers, but The Third Murder is not likely to provide a suitable gateway to the casual observer. This tepid legal thriller, largely devoid of thrills and lacking much in the way of courtroom drama, maintains the gracefully laconic style that characterizes much of Kore-eda’s previous work, but unfortunately abandons the warmth and heart that make those films so remarkable.
Kore-eda’s narrative plays a bit like Rashomon meets Anatomy of a Murder, although you could realistically plug just about any legal potboiler into that description and get the gist. The premise is promising enough, kicking off the film with a brutal murder and devoting the remaining two hours of running time to the how, why — and potentially, if — surrounding that opening salvo. The plot is centered on no-nonsense lawyer Shigemori (Masaharu Fukuyama) trying to construct a plausible defense for confessed murderer Misumi (Kôji Yakusho) — not to exonerate a man already convicted of two murders some 30 years prior, but to help him avoid the death penalty.
It’s Kore-eda’s themes rather than his plotting that form the spine of The Third Murder. As Shigemori delves into Misumi’s constantly shifting account of the killing of his erstwhile boss, the writer/director explores Japan’s labyrinthine legal system, the ethical implications of its employment of the death penalty, and the human entanglements that can contribute to murder — specifically, the moral ambiguity unveiled when Shigemori starts to uncover the motives behind Misumi’s heinous act. Kore-eda’s script focuses on parental relationships, whether filial or adoptive, and places its procedural genre trappings largely in the background as he explores the generational fallout of unnatural death both illegally committed and legally sanctioned. At its core, Kore-eda’s film is about the subjective nature of “truth” and the human failings that make ascertaining such definitive conclusions all but impossible.
If the bones of The Third Murder are fascinating, the flesh leaves something to be desired. Kore-eda’s camera movements and setups are occasionally inspired, whether pushing a God’s-eye perspective slowly over a hill as lawyers investigate the murder scene or framing Shigemori’s reflection in superimposition with the face of Misumi in a climactic encounter. However, his characterization and story development start out strong and whither as the story drags on, creating a frustrating lack of catharsis for the viewer. The fundamental underpinnings of his film are compelling, but Kore-eda’s natural tendency toward languid pacing conflicts with his chosen genre in this case, resulting in a film that grabs but doesn’t necessarily hold attention even as it demands consideration. If The Third Murder doesn’t compare favorably to the best of Kore-eda’s work, it’s still a good film in the broader context of much of what’s currently available in theaters. But for a master filmmaker of Kore-eda’s level, simply “good” is something of a disappointment.